Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Birding the Blue Ridge Mountains

A plethora of fantastic birds, of course, inspired the trip, but it would have been worth it for the beauty of the landscape alone.  From a good vantage point such as Roan or Mitchel, ridges tinged blue by vegetable volatiles layer their way outwards for miles in all directions like waves on a still forested ocean. 
An Alder Flycatcher enjoying the view
Up close these vistas transform into majestic stands of northern hardwoods or coniferous groves straight out of some fairy tale.  And then of course there were the grassy balds with rhododendrons and azaleas in full bloom.

Until last weekend, I had not visited the North Carolina mountains in summer since camp some 15 years ago. The scenery gave me a pleasant nostalgia yet much of the bird life was exciting and new. Familiar birds were, of course, everywhere as well, but many species were ones that I'm only used to seeing in winter.  Juncos, for example, were signing...

Dark-eyed Junco
..and nesting everywhere.  

Dark-eyed Junco nest
Yellow Warbler
The mountains are known for their warblers and on that front they didn't disappoint (we had 16 species).

At a stop along the Parkway we heard 3 singing Cerulean Warblers and I got great looks at one as it belted out its song.  I had wanted to see this bird for ages (lifer #1511!)

Chestnut-sided Warbler
After a stop at the highest point east of the Mississippi we headed for our camping spot, Roan Mountain, on the Tennessee border. 

But on our way we spotted a Wild Turkey standing by the side of the Parkway and not 2 minutes later a Ruffed Grouse (NC bird #262!).  We would hear at least 3 bobwhites singing above Carver's Gap the next morning giving us a sweep of the native terrestrial game birds.

As we walked up the side of Round Bald, a grass-covered mound dotted with patches of spruce, azalea and rhododendron, Jacob Socolar unleashed "The John Fussell Method for Flushing a Vesper Sparrow."
Jacob hoping to flush a Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow
Not a single sparrow flushed, but a moment later we stumbled upon a Vesper Sparrow singing from a patch of short spruce trees (life bird #1512!).

We were surprised to see nearly 10 more actively singing and posturing at invisible territorial barriers along the Appalachian just after sunset.  It turns out this bird is well-named as the word "vesper" can be defined as:


of, pertaining to, appearing in, or proper to the evening."
I propose a name change from Evening Grosbeak to "Vesper Grosbeak."

I guess it is not a secret that these sneaky birds breed up here, but the following morning we saw one with food in its mouth that we assume it was planning on feeding to nestlings hidden somewhere in the grass. 
Vesper Sparrow with food

We also found singing Alder Flycatchers on the bald and down into Carver's Gap quite easily (NC bird #264).  We counted at least 10, some of which sang into the late morning. 

Alder Flycatcher
But we didn't hang around too long, because we had gotten a hot tip about a spot for Golden-winged Warblers over in Tennessee.

Hampton Creek Cove did not disappoint.  Not only was there a Golden-winged Warbler actively singing and foraging right near the entrance (though apparently too busy raising a family to stop for a photo) but there were also a couple Willow Flycatchers.

We headed back to Roan for the night and tried some Owling with John Hare, but completely struck out.

The next day we headed for Elk Knob Gamelands hoping to find more Golden-winged Warblers on the NC side of the border.  We found loads of perfect habitat, but as soon as we stepped out of the car a ferocious thunderstorm whipped up and blew away all the birds we were after.  Well that's not entirely true.  We did stumble upon a few Least Flycatchers (NC bird #264) and up at the gap got possibly our best bird of the trip... 

Evidence of a Loggerhead Shrike?
Yet it wasn't even a bird at all, just a beetle impaled on a barbed wire fence.  But the implications are that a Loggerhead Shrike must be in the area someplace and have plans to return and eat the beetle later.  This is a species that Simpson's The Bird of the Blue Ridge Mountains (1992) lists as a: "Rare permanent resident, more frequent from August through March, mostly...at elevations below 3,000 feet; declining in numbers since 1970s."  So we found solid evidence of a rare bird at an unexpected time of year well above its expected elevation (4400+ feet at Rich Mountain Gap).

Other interesting finds for the weekend:

A Swainson's Thrush heard singing from near Jane Bald.  Simpson (1992) lists this as a rare summer resident on Mount Rogers summit (wherever that is).

A White-eyed Vireo heard singing at 5400 feet at Engine Gap (where we camped). Simpson (1992) lists this as ranging up to 4,000 feet until after late July when it can wander higher.

At least two singing Magnolia Warblers at Roan Mountain; "rare at Roan Mountain" (Simpson 1992).

A Yellow-rumped Warbler seen at Carver's Gap.  I had read someplace online that these are known to breed in the mountains albeit in very small numbers. 

Ali found about 700 salamanders.

Immature Brown-headed Cowbird (not a Red Crossbill)
We got all excited about this bird until we realized it was an immature cowbird rather than a crossbill.  A flock of what Jacob tells me were crossbills flew over us at Carver's Gap, but this wasn't a satisfactory look for me.

The biggest miss though was Mark Kosiewski and the Meehan brothers who we had planned to meet up with at Roan.  Chalk up another bungle to over-reliance on mobile phones (and more importantly, network coverage).

Plenty of bird species left to see up there to bring me back for another trip sometime.

But do I really need birds as excuse to make this kind of a camping trip?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My first summer trip to Hatteras

I had so much fun on my last Hatteras trip that when a friend invited me down to his house in Frisco for the weekend, I just couldn't say 'no.'

Hatteras is a whole different world of birds in summertime.  But vacationers also flock from all over the place for the abundant sand, warm water and legendary fishing.

Before I even got there though I saw a couple Gull-billed Terns while crossing the bridge over Oregon Inlet.  My 250th bird in North Carolina!

And then less than an hour later I found a group of Black-necked Stilts at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge for my 300th United States (and ABA) bird!

White-winged Dove
Far more unusual than the stilts (which are, afterall, featured on the Pea Island NWR logo) was a White-winged Dove I found in the Live Oak tunnel that covers part of the nature trail.  On my trip back through on Sunday I stopped in again and found the White-winged Dove again, this time at the bird feeders by the refuge office.  It was doing its best Mourning Dove impression, but the grackles weren't buying it. 

I last saw a White-winged Dove just minutes away, as the bird flies, during the Pea Island Christmas bird count last December (see my post for the photo etc.). But seeing one in June is probably even more unexpected than in December.  As far as I know (though I admit I don't know all that much; somebody set me straight) this is the first June record for NC.  I did find a record for June in South Carolina from 1998 on the Carolina Bird Club Website.

Anyway, I seem to have an affinity for finding this species.

On to Hatteras...

Great Shearwater
I was able to get a last-minute spot on Brian Patteson's boat and go out to the gulf stream on Saturday.  Conditions where perfect: partly cloudy with mild seas, though I have been told that a rough ocean often seems to bring out better birds.  Indeed, the birding was pretty average.  It could have been worse, but we certainly didn't see anything super-rare (3 White-tailed Tropicbirds were seen on the Sunday trip for example).  But these pelagic trips are always a roll of the dice, and given that this was my first one in summer, I really couldn't lose.  Great Shearwater, Audubon's Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel and a Pomarine Jaeger were all life birds for me, while Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm Petrel and Corey's Shearwater were added to my ABA area list.

Short-finned Pilot Whale
Unfortunately, my camera is pretty terrible at taking pictures of things against the ocean, so I didn't get any great bird photos.  I found napping passengers made for much more easily captured subjects (see Ali Iyoob's facebook page).  My luck capturing marine mammals wasn't that great either, especially given that many came swimming right up to the front of the boat to ride the bow.  We saw Bottlenose and Spotted Dolphins; and Cuvier's Beaked and Long-finned Pilot Whales.

After we disembarked Ali, Nathan Swick and I checked the salt pond near cape point hoping to see the Red-billed Tropicbird that had been reported there the day before.  We found no sign of any ABA logos, but there were Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Short-billed Dowitchers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, Piping Plovers, Black Skimmers, an American Oystercatcher and Least Terns all over the place to name a few of the more interesting birds present.  I checked for the tropicbird again the next day (three times just to be sure) without luck while Ali and Nate were out at sea busily seeing a few White-tailed Tropicbirds.

My stop to refind the White-winged Dove at Pea Island NWR earned me one final life bird (#1510!) for the trip in a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes on North Pond.  How convenient.  This was a pelagic species I was disappointed not to see from the boat.

Black Bear
In hopes of seeing a Glossy Ibis, I stopped into Alligator River NWR on my way back towards Durham.  Access to all the impoundment areas seemed to be blocked, but I was rewarded for my trouble by my first ever sighting of a wild Black Bear.  As I was watching in through binoculars from my car I glanced forward to see an adult Wild Turkey hustling across the road in front of me!

What a great trip: 6 new life birds and almost as many new mammals!  I'm sure I'll be back for another visit before long.
This weekend I'm off to the NC mountains where I have never before birded.  Getting 6 life birds may not be possible, but I hope to find at least a few!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mediterranean birding part 2

Continuing my epic odyssey through the Greek Islands where I left off…

Tilos: A small quiet out-of-the-way island that I made a special effort to visit because of its claim to be a refuge for rare bird species.  The island has apparently had a long-standing, though controversial, hunting ban, and the island has been promoting itself as the ecotourism destination of the Greek Islands.  My Lonely Planet book even proclaimed that more migratory birds arrive to its shores than tourists.  

When I arrived, however I found the most barren Greek island I had ever seen.  The arid rocky hills were completely deforested.  But after arriving in Tilos, it is too late to change plans.  Ferries come and go so rarely from the lone port of Livadia that a minimum three-day stay was necessary.  I felt almost victim to some sort of a Greenland-style marketing scheme.  Nevertheless, it was nice to get away from the bustle of over-touristed towns and establishments that tarnish too much of the Greek Archipelagos.  And there were still these rare birds I could go find…

Their silhouettes were on the door of the tourist often and the proprietor of my studio apartment supplied me a pamphlet describing each:   

1) Mediterranean Shag (“The Mediterranean Diver”), actually a subspecies of Eurasian Shag, which I had seen 5 years ago, but a target nonetheless; 2) Eleonora’s Falcon (“Falcon of the Aegean”), one of my target birds for this trip!; 3) Bonelli’s Eagle (“The Eagle of the Coasts”), Tilos is apparently home to 5 of Europe’s 800 pairs.  

Finding the Shag was easy enough.  Following the advice of a local, I strolled along the bay in the evening and, sure enough, a pair was out swimming out in the blue Aegean.  I saw a group of four later from a ferry.  (Note: that Great Cormorants are also around…just a heads up.)  One down.

Eleonora's Falcon (Dark)
Eleonora’s Falcons turned out to be a common sight in the sky.  Apparently I caught them during a big migratory movement…I counted 39 wheeling about and sparring with each other over the main town one evening.  Two down and scratch another of my targets for the trip!

The Eagle turned out to be the toughest of the Tilos trio.  Since I arrived on a Saturday night, Monday was my first opportunity to consult the tourist office for advice on where to find them, but in typical Greek form, by 9:30, nobody had shown up in the information office.  Rather than wait, I went out for a hike out to some abandoned village.  

Eleonora's Falcon (Light)
It was a long sweltering jaunt with no shade.  The village's former inhabitants probably left because they were thirsty.  I spotted a couple life birds: a Long-legged Buzzard and a Common Redstart.  But neither of those are Bonelli’s Eagles.  I just had to find one before I left the island and the clock was ticking!
By the time I made it back to town it was half past two and I was half past exhausted.  The information officer had finally shown up to work and helpfully showed me the locations of all the nesting locations of the all five pairs of Bonelli’s Eagles on the island.  Tragically one was just a ways beyond the abandoned village I had just spent hours trekking to and from.  Apparently I needed to have gone up some unmarked goat trail to find them.  All the other nests were nowhere near the main port of Livadia where I stayed.  Caught up in a heat stroke-induced delirium I went into town to try to rent a scooter so I could zip over to the far side of the island to get after my bird.  But my plans were dashed when the rental owner refused to rent me a bike because of my lack of scooter experience.  Given the lack of a hospital on the island, this was probably for the best.  

Defeated, I shuffled back to my room and took a Greek-style mid-afternoon nap.  There was no way I could see the eagle now.  The nests were too far away and I wouldn’t have the time or transport to get to one before my 11 am ferry the following morning.  I awoke in the early evening refreshed and decided to go for another hike.  This one didn’t take me anywhere near one of the eagle nests, so I was pleasantly shocked when a couple calling gulls alerted me to the presence of a passing Bonelli’s Eagle!  The gulls chased it ahead of me and then an Eleonora’s Falcon dive-bombed it from out of nowhere forcing some impressive evasive maneuvering from the eagle.  It was like watching a fighter jet go after a bomber.  

Twenty minutes further along the trail the same eagle flushed from a nearby boulder this time with two Ravens in hot pursuit.  Their croaking attracted a few more gulls that joined into the fray.  It definitely appeared to be in hostile territory! 
Short-toed (Snake) Eagle - a Tilos first!

After rounding a rocky headland the trail reached a gorge filled with some of the most luxuriant vegetation I had seen on the island.  Other than a large covey of Chukar though there was little conspicuous bird life.  Then I noticed the imposing silhouette of a raptor perched in a dead tree ahead and above me on the rim of the gorge.  It took flight and circled several times over me giving me a chance to get great looks and take a jerky video (probably not worth watching, but uploaded here anyway: HD video).  I identified it to be a Short-toed (Snake) Eagle, which I found out the next morning was a species that had not been seen previously on Tilos.  An island first!!!

So despite the rather Martian climate and lack of bird habitat, I left Tilos upbeat.  An Audouin’s Gull (“near-threatened” per the IUCN) from the ferry en route to Nissyros was great icing for the cake. 


My next stop, Kos, was brief (only 8 hours), but was my last chance to bird on my own on this trip so I wanted to make the most of it.  I rented a bike and set out for what appeared to be a wetland on my map.  Fortuitously it turned out to be Alykes Lake, which was loaded with Greater Flamingos and the closest thing I had seen thus far on my trip to what one might call a birdwatching hotspot by New World standards.  

Spur-winged Plover
On my loop around the lake I encountered a handful of life birds: Spur-winged Plover (or Lapwing), (Greater) Short-toed Lark, Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Reed-Warbler and Lesser Gray Shrike.  I also found a Black-winged Stilt, which, along with the flamingos, I had only seen previously in Australia. A bonus on the cycle back to town was a Eurasian Hobby perched on the power lines for yet another life tick (#1489). 

My next stop was Paros and my brothers’ wedding.  From here on out I birded less intensely, mainly as a courtesy to the non-birding “normal people” with whom I kept company.  So from here on (and in the interest of wrapping this up) I’m just going to go blitz through the final 11 birds on my quest for 1500.


I flushed a Common Snipe out of a ditch one day (#1490); hooray!  I also had three Ruffs and caught a photo of one in flight with the diagnostic white pattern.  This would have been a life bird had I not seen one (amazingly) at Jordan Lake in Durham, NC.

From the ferry to Athens I spotted a pair of Yelkouan (aka. Levantine; aka. Mediterranean) Shearwaters (#1491).


I saw my first Hoopoes at the Parthenon 5 years ago, but no sign of any this time.  This was probably more a function of the time of day than anything else (mid-afternoon rather than early morning).  

Little Owls are everywhere if you know where to look.  They can be camera shy though!
Little Owl (relaxed)
Little Owl (freaked out!)

I heard and flushed a few Cirl Buntings while poking around Agamemnon’s old haunt in the Peloponnese (#1492)


A 4-hour hike down the Vouraikos gorge yielding some beautiful views, Coal Tits and Gray Wagtails, but no life ticks.  


I saw my first Blackcap in a park in Maceratta (#1493).  I would later see many more in Croatia. 

Krka National Park (Croatia)
Krka National Park

This gorgeous network of streams pools and waterfalls crisscrossed by boardwalks was unfortunately mobbed with tour bus groups.  The beauty wasn’t diminished but the crowds were definitely a hindrance.  Supposedly Black Storks are possible in Krka, but I saw no water birds of any kind other than a couple mallards (despite the abundance of water everywhere).  A detour down an access road yielded views of Common Nightengale and Cetti’s Warbler (#1494 and 1495), two birds I had heard several times previously on the trip but never been able to see.  

Paklenica National Park

Eurasian Nuthatch
Approximately 95% of visitors to the park are there to rock climb, which left us with nearly private use of the 200 kilometers of hiking trails.  The landscape was bizzare…not because of the rugged peaks ridges and shelves that seemed to jut whimsically in every direction, but mainly because the lush beech or spruce forests seemed to emerge directly from rocky hill slope.  It was as if there were no soil in most places, only dolomite boulders and cobble. 

I read somewhere that Gryphon Vultures used to breed here, but that they had been extirpated in the 1990s.  So this was my only non-chance to see one of my target birds! I wasn’t holding my breath on the vulture, but it was nice to be out in a relatively undisturbed forest for essentially the first time on this trip.  It seemed to have some birds I had never seen before as well: Eurasian Nuthatch (#1496), Common Chiffchaff (#1497), Willow Tit (#1498) and Eastern Orphean Warbler (#1499).  These relatively unexciting birds set me up for a worthy #1500:
Black Woodpecker
a Black Woodpecker, my first woodpecker of the trip and a huge and beautiful bird to boot! I watched it fly between several huge dead stumps in a gorgeous old grove of huge trees that created a natural cathedral.  It was a spectacular setting in which to achieve this milestone. 

Elsewhere in Croatia

That evening from my apartment balcony, someplace northwest of Starigrad, I spotted a Red-backed Shrike (#1501; I didn’t get stuck on 1500 for very long).  Moments later in the gathering darkness a Tawny Owl called and swooped from a tree (#1502).  

The countryside inland was beautiful and the drive yielded some amazing views of countless islands and peninsulas enveloped by an indefinable matrix of straights and sounds.  Bird life was rather unremarkable, though Red-backed Shrikes were everywhere, Common Buzzards seemed interested in the Tesla museum and I heard (but didn't get to see) some Eurasian Cuckoos in a church yard.  

Red-backed Shrike
The Zadar airport is noteworthy because it has the only terminal I have ever seen with an outdoor cafĂ©/waiting area.  I took full advantage and was rewarded with some surprisingly interesting hawk watching.  A Montagu’s Harrier flew past (#1503) and then a Honey Buzzard (#1504) about 15 minutes later.  At this point I was getting some pretty strange looks from fellow passengers.  Fortunately nothing else interesting showed up and no one reported me as a terrorist suspect. 

So that was my experience birding a bit in the Mediterranean.  My two targets missed were Gryphon Vulture (which I never really had a chance at) and Roller.  But I got 45 life birds, soaked in loads of ancient history and saw my brother get happily married.  What a trip!  Next time around I’ll skip Tilos and go straight up some mountain looking for Lammergeiers and Wallcreepers as a proper birding nut should.  

For now it’s back to NC birding, but I’ll be dipping back to Europe in just a few weeks to go to a Society of Wetland Scientists Conference in Prague.  Why?  To make a poster presentation about birds!  I can’t wait.  And maybe I’ll be able to see some Black Storks in some Czech wetland while I’m there!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mediterranean birding part 1

 "Where have you been, Scott?" Is the question I have been asked by countless followers (countless because none have asked).  To put all of your concerns to rest, I am proud to announce I have been alive and well and birding! ...just over on a different continent without a computer with which to blog.  Since I've been away for almost a month rather than crank out one mammoth post, I am going to do this in installments... so here goes part 1!


I planned my itinerary around offerings of Ryanair out of London-Stansted rather than any specific birding destination.  I ended up with a route that had me arriving in Rhodes in the southeastern corner of Europe, a mere stone’s throw from Turkey. 
From there I island hopped my way through Tilos, Kos, Siros and to Paros to see my brother get married (the impetus for making this trip in the first place).  From Paros I ferried on to Athens before a quick pass through the Peloponnese peninsula to Patras.  After a couple overnight boat rides and a 36-hour taste of Italy I arrived in Croatia for a few days along part of the gorgeous Dalmatian coast before my exit flight from Zadar.  

So many cats :(
Birding this part of the world (particularly Greece), one gets the sense that it’s a rather rough place to make a living as a song bird.  Feral cats are everywhere, feeders don’t exist and trees are often a scarce commodity.  Birding as an activity seems to be more often carried out with a shotgun and not much thought.  Sound enticing?  

It’s not as if Greeks are concerned about promoting ecotourism; between the picturesque beaches and abundant remnants of the ancient world, visitors already arrive in swarms during peak months (July and August).  May is an ideal time to visit even if there aren’t the diversity of migrant birds I would have expected.  The weather and flowers are gorgeous and the throngs of tourists are absent making for lots of discounted accommodation and un-crowded ferries. 


I arrived in the late afternoon in the former knight stronghold, rented a car and immediately headed for the mountainous and forested interior of the island.  As if to welcome me to Greece I quickly stumbled upon a huge flock of Bee-eaters. 
Lots of Bee-eaters!
I slammed on the brakes and pulled over to watch them swirl around and alight on some power lines.  One of my target birds found almost immediately! 
Bee-eaters (with bee!)
Then I noticed two raptors gliding by overhead: a pair of Booted Eagles!  What a great start!

Woodchat Shrike
I spent the next day-and-a-half crisscrossing the island looking for birds while visiting various castles and ruins.  I tried camping at higher elevations in the forest hoping to find migrating flocks of birds in the early morning, but this made for uninteresting birding.   The land birding provided little diversity, though Bee-eaters were everywhere (I estimated seeing 200 total; peak migration I assume) and I was happy to find a couple Woodchat Shrikes along power lines.  Partridges were quite common and I got a good look at a brave one with a white throat that must have been a Rock Partridge.  I had assumed all would be Chukars; could both species breed on Rhodes?  I also had some great looks at Lesser Kestrel, which can be pretty difficult to discern from the more widespread Eurasian Kestrel (see photo).
Which Kestrel?

Temminck's Stint
The best birding was undoubtedly shorebirding the coastal streambeds that still held some water.  I found a Temminck’s Stint in Afandou (along with Little Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Squacco Heron) and in another stream further north I found what was possibly the best bird of the island, a Citrine Wagtail, which ebird flagged as a rare observation. 
Citrine Wagtail (flagged as rare by ebird)
Too bad it was a female and not a male. For conveniently easy identification, it was in the company of a pair of Yellow Wagtails (along with more Little Stints, Little Ringed Plovers and a Wood Sandpiper). 

I ended up with 16 life birds after 3 days in Rhodes including most of those mentioned above as well as: European Turtle-Dove, Whinchat, Red-rumped Swallow and Mediterranean Gull.  As a bonus a saw 6 Corey’s Shearwaters (“Scopoli’s Shearwaters”) on the ferry to Tilos.  Strangely these were flagged as rare by ebird as well.  I saw at least one on just about every ferry I rode in Greece.  

I'll begin part 2 with Tilos, a self-proclaimed sanctuary for birds and proud home to three important and rare species.  Stay tuned!
Common Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper